Hunan: Pig’s Heads & Betel Nut

Ok, so pig’s heads and betel nut is not all Hunan has to offer. But they were the most distinct images and smells that I was left with after a week in that incredible, fiery province.

Our journey started in Changsha (长沙), the capital of Hunan province. We flew into the airport and made our way to the city centre with the airport bus that drops you off a couple of minutes from the train station (¥16.5). From here it’s easy to make your way to other parts of the city with lots of local buses leaving from just outside the station. We were staying at Changsha International Youth Hostel off of Dongfeng Lu, so we headed there (bus 136) dropped off our stuff and ventured out to explore the wonders of Changsha. During our travels we heard negative comments about the city from other travellers but for us Changsha was nothing but fun! The city feels pretty spread out and you can end up walking for ages to get from one place to another but with a map and helpful tips from the amazingly friendly locals you can manage to explore on foot. The first place we came across was the Martyr’s Park. It’s quite huge with a lake and lots of people sitting around, “enjoying” some of the weird kiddies rides that you often come across in China and flying some really amazing home-made planes. As we walked around the city we started to notice small bags of what looked like chewing tobacco being sold everywhere!! Every shop had them down by the till in ¥5, ¥7, ¥10 bags. We decided that there was nothing for it but to just go ahead and try it. Inside was what looked like half of a long nut. Soft, blackish, with something in the middle of it. My first try and I spat it out after 2 minutes. Then I tried again! Both Ryan and I experienced the same sensations as we chewed this strange thing. Your body starts to get warmer, your heart beats a little faster, you feel your cheeks starting to heat up (and turn pink) and then you get this weird lump in your thoat. At this point you feel a little light headed or as my friend kept saying you feel like you’re flying. Then you chew and chew and chew and eventually the effects wear off and you end up with this husk type thing in your mouth and spit it out. Weird but I actually really liked it! We noticed lots of the stuff spat out all over the streets and saw plenty of men (especially older men) chewing it. I don’t think this is something women usually do, but what the hell! Discussing our new found discovery we made our way down to the river with a couple of beers and were welcomed with the LONGEST firework display I’ve ever seen!

After spending almost an hour watching the fireworks and the locals we headed over to Huangxing Road Walking Street (天心区黄兴路) which is near the river just off of Jiefang West Road. There are plenty of snacks to eat around here..deep-fried banana, squid on a stick, very very black chou dofu, shao kao of all sorts, noodles, fruity drinks… We decided to go for noodles with veg and meat cooked in individual pots on the fire followed by a few street snacks.

The next day we set off to Zhangjiajie, hopping in a bus around lunch time, we arrived there at about 5 in the afternoon. Hmm.. my first impressions of the city of Zhangjiajie were “where the hell have we come?!?” As the bus drives towards the station you go past dozens and dozens of what appear to be empty houses and factories, giving the impression that everyone evacuated the town a long time ago. There is an almost eerie feeling to it and makes you wonder if this is the right place. But as this is China and it is always full of surprises the number 6 bus into the actual city soon reveals that it is on the contrary quite a lovely, colourful place and not at all what you expect! We found a hostel more or less by accident. We waited till we got to a part of town that looked nice and jumped off the bus at Xin Yi Jia supermaket. There is a huge staircase that leads you upto a tiger being suckled by a boy (some ancient story..) and at the top of this you can find a couple of places to stay. We chose to stay at Zhangjiajie Bajie Youth Hostel and it was fantastic! We paid about ¥80 for a double room with shared bathroom (though as it was off-peak it seemed we were the only ones to use it). The hostel is really nicely decorated, lots of wood throughout and is VERY clean! After leaving our bags we went off in search of food and found a little pedestrian food street a couple of streets away. We decided to try the hotpot. We ended up with a BIG pot of organs in a nice sauce. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of intestines and stomachs and all those bits from down below but it tasted pretty good. We washed it down with some beer and then went down to the river to chew on some betel nut and have some more beer. It’s really nice down by the water and the sky is illuminated by a church! Yes, a bit out of place, but there is a large church down by the water that dominates the city skyline. After walking around a bit more we called it an early night and planned for the next day.

Wulingyuan in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1990 and is situated about 40 minutes away from the city. You can take the bus from the bus station, it’s ¥10 and leaves every 15 minutes. The bus drops you off at Zhangjiajie village also known as Senlin Gongyuan and you can enter the park from here. Originally we thought about staying at one of the hotels at this entrance, so we could leave our bags there while hiking. It was off-peak season so we knew there wouldn’t be much choice but it turned out there was actually no choice! Most places were closed or being renovated and the few that were open were so incredibly depressing we couldn’t bare to stay there. It was drizzling with rain and our spirits were pretty low so we decided to change plans and entered the park. We were greeted by macaques as we entered, mostly curious to see if we had anything to eat. There are several different trails you can follow and we randomly walked along with the hope of doing some kind of circular route. It’s really green and peaceful in the park and there was hardly anyone around. We took out the bottle of rice wine and within a few minutes we were feeling merry and enjoying the smell of the trees and the sound of the river. We followed the river for a while then started to climb a million steps. We weren’t really sure where we were headed but as we climbed the view became more and more spectacular, with the karst peaks rising around us. We finally made it to the top and hit the main road that runs through the park and after about a minutes walk came across the Zhongtian Int’l Youth Hostel (Yuanjiajie), located in the heart of the park. We had actually thought about staying here but getting to it had seemed far too complicated. As luck would have it we ended up here anyway and settled down under a heated table for food and a good book. The hostel was pretty basic, we stayed in a 3 bed dorm which meant 3 mattresses on the floor pushed together. We were the only ones so it was fine but the room was pretty damp. Luckily they have electric blankets!

We tried to get up early in the morning and took the park bus upto Huangshizhai and walked around enjoying the incredible views. Luckily it turned out to be a beautiful day and we got to see a lot of the park. The views are breathtaking and it’s a great idea to bring a picnic and soak in this spectacular place for a while. We wanted to spend most of our time there walking so we didn’t do any of the cable-cars or sky-lifts. Instead we walked down a beautiful mossy trail dotted with stone bridges and gushing streams that led to the lower section of the park. From here we took a bus back to Zhangjiajie city and stayed at the same hostel for one more night.

Next up was Fenghuang. We first went to Jishou then changed buses there and got to the beautiful river town in the afternoon. There was a bit of a mix up with the information given in the Lonely Planet. The place they recommend that you stay at doesn’t seem to exist anymore and another guest house uses their phone number! But no matter, we ended up staying in a lovely room with a balcony over the river for just ¥60 a night. Fenghuang has been tidied up for the tourists but as it was not really tourist season we managed to have a really lovely time there. So nice that we decided to stay a second night. We didn’t visit any of the temples or museums but just spent most of time exploring the back streets and curling up under a blanket on our balcony dreaming of running our own little guest house.

One thing I would definitely recommend to do is to visit the market. It is huge and goes on forever.. There is a very “interesting” meat section, where for the first time I saw dog meat on sale. This was quite disturbing as there was absolutely no doubt what it was and there were pig’s heads everywhere. It’s not for the faint hearted but I’m really glad we got to experience this. There are also lots of delicious pickles, pastes and peppers on sale.

The town seems to be completely taken over by flat caps! All the old men were sporting different versions and we spent quite a lot of time in search of the perfect flat cap! =) There’s also lots of different jius (fruit wines) on sale and we sampled quite a few of these colourful, cough syrupy concoctions. We ate some delicious food in Fenghuang on our first night, lots of vegetables in a spicy sauce and we came across some dishes that I’ve never seen before. One of these was a chicken dish, where the chicken seems to have been sealed inside a ball of cement?! Popular but very expensive, so we gave that a miss. We saw quite a few bush rats in cages waiting to be eaten.. we didn’t fancy that either! Our second night we ate some of the local favourite, dried meat. I can’t say I really liked it, there was a lot of it and it had a very salty, slightly sweet, oily flavour. However, we did get to enjoy some great local entertainment as a group of very drunk men decided to have a punch up in the middle of the restaurant. No one seemed particularly bothered about this and the men went tumbling around the room, occasionally picking each other up for a hug? then shouting at each other again! Ah, China!
In general, Fenghuang is really relaxing, you can spend hours walking and sitting by the river. The people seem to enjoy spending all their time outdoors even when it gets chilly in the evening. It’s beautifully quite and you can watch the birds flying over the water and drift off into your own little world.

The next stop on our list was Dehang. I don’t know many people that have been to this village. To get there you need to return to Jishou and take another bus for about 40 minutes. The drive is really nice and takes you back into the karst peaks. Unfortunately it was really cloudy when we went so we couldn’t see too much of them but it was great to get away from the cities and breathe in the fresh, cool air. There was literally nothing there when we arrived. The few people that live there seemed to be tucked away in their houses while the youngsters (can’t believe I can say that know!!) were hanging out in the village basketball court or huddled around the one computer in the village playing games. We found that one restaurant was open and ate lunch there and then went off to find the waterfalls. There is a little path that leads from the other end of the village through terraced field to the waterfalls. It’s very pretty and quiet and everything looks as if it was made to have it’s photo taken.

As it had been a bit rainy the waterfall was pretty impressive. You can follow the path round the edge of it and actually walk under the waterfall. It was such a beautiful spot, if only it had been sunny, I would have been in there for a swim.

It’s beautifully green in this area and there is a path you can take up alongside a another waterfall that tumbles and turns through the rocks. It’s a steep and slippery climb but beautiful. Tiny bats flew around us as we criss-crossed over the waterfall. If fairies exist this is where they live! We didn’t have much day light left so we had to turn back after a while. I would recommend heading there earlier in the day and spend a full day exploring. As the village went to sleep at sunset we got some bottles of beer and sat down under our heated table and played card games and chatted till we gave in to the peaceful village ways and did as the locals do. It was a really unique experience, it really feels like time has stopped in this little corner of Hunan.

We woke the next day to a goat and the screams of a pig. Yes, it was being slaughtered right outside our room. I’ve never seen a pig killed before and this was a very hefty one. Three men shaved off all the hair and then the master butcher stepped in and hung it up and cut it up. It was like watching an artist, he was so precise and so clean, it was like watching someone taking a machine apart. After that novel start to the day we took the bus back to Jishou and headed back to Changsha for our final night. The Dehang market was on that day and as our crowded bus very slowly made it’s way through the bustling street we watched the local Miao people selling and buying their produce, fantastic!

Our last night in Changsha was a quiet one, soaking in the wonders of the past week and thinking of the adventures to come. We did manage to fit in one last meal and of course it had to be Chairman Mao’s favourite dish, red-braised pork belly, yum!

I could have spent at least another week exploring this incredible part of Hunan. We didn’t manage to make it to Mao’s birthplace (much to the disappointment of the man I buy my bread from!) and it would have been nice to climb Heng Shan, the mountain to the south of Changsha. Oh, well..there’s always next time!


*If you decide to stay at Changsha International Youth Hostel and there are 2 of you I would recommend you stay in the rooms instead of the dorms. It works out just 9 kuai more per person and you get a lovely clean room with a comfy bed and your own bathroom.

*The entrance fee to Zhangjiajie Park is pretty steep but it allows you to enter the park for 3 days in a row which makes it a bit more reasonable.

*On the bus to Fenghuang, a local girl asked us if we were scared of the flesh-eating bandits?!?! If anyone can enlighten me on this, that would be great! =)


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